Mike Goforth, who coaches youth baseball when he isn't administering to Virginia Tech's sporting wounded, knew last summer that his returning team of 9- and 10-year-old Dixie Youth all stars from Blacksburg was going to be good. Seven returning starters tend to confer a measure of confidence on a coach.
Then the Hughes boys moved to town.
That would be Thomas and Hal, a ready-made double play combination with an impeccable pedigree. Their father, Pete, was a recent hire as new coach of the Hokies baseball team. The brothers obviously had been well schooled in the virtues of patience at the plate, knowing which base to throw to and how to shuck sunflower seeds with tooth and tongue.
The returning starters plus the Hughes brothers along with six others (four of whom were alternates) turned out to be every bit as stouthearted a bunch of throwers, catchers and hitters as Goforth would have hoped. Blacksburg went on to win the District 3 championship last week and will begin state tournament play at 6 p.m. Saturday at Moyer Field in Salem. First up for Blacksburg in the double elimination affair will be Charlotte County.
The tournament will be great, no doubt about that. Still, Goforth, Tech's assistant athletic director in charge of athletic training, has the luxury of looking forward to Dixie campaigns to come.
"We'll have seven players back next year, too," he said.
There's plenty to enjoy about the here and now for the Blacksburg Baseball Association, the umbrella organization that has since 1999 been delivering baseball from coach-pitch to summer high school league to the town's young players.
Not only did the 9- and 10-year-old all stars win district but so did the 11-12's, the latter for the first time this year competing in the new O-Zone level of competition (definition to come). The 11-12's, coached by Mike Barry, played late into the state tournament at Radford this week before being eliminated.
"We won a game then lost two by a total of three runs," Barry said. "That tells me about the level of competition in that tournament. Five of the eight teams could have won it and we were one of them."
One of the teams that beat Blacksburg was Christiansburg, by a run, a team Blacksburg had knocked off during the district tournament the week before. In the other loss, the North Roanoke center fielder threw out the tying run at the plate in the fifth inning.
"Great throw by the center fielder," Barry said.
The O-Zone level, by the way, is a welcome addition to Dixie competition, long known for undersized fields and less challenging playing rules. In O-Zone, teams may choose to play on fields with 50-foot mound to plate and 70-foot basepath dimensions. The other levels of play, which many teams continue to favor, have 46-foot mound to plate and 60-foot basepaths.
Additionally, non-O-Zoners runners cannot lead off bases or steal before the pitch crosses the plate. A dropped third strike doesn't require a throw to first base. In O-Zone, the opposite applies.
"It was a tremendous adjustment from the old style," Barry said. "Our kids loved it. It's more like real baseball."
In other words, it's more like what the United States Specialty Sports Association and Amateur Athletic Union travel teams play, better known as big boy baseball.
The Blacksburg Majors, as the 11-12's are known, were made up of players from three teams: Blacksburg Navy, Royal and Maroon. From the Royal came third baseman Dylan McMahan. The Maroon contributed left fielder Matt Perry, right fielder Zach Craven, catcher Kevin Prichard and left fielder Tyler Remser. The Navy provided center fielder Brandon Tucker, pitcher and first baseman Alex Shimizono, pitcher and first baseman John Hamborsky, utility player Ryan Mondy, shortstop Gabe Dascanio, catcher Cody Minnix, second baseman Tyler Barry and his dad, Coach Mike.
The Blacksburg Minors, as the 9-10s are known, come from four teams, all of which had mostly dominated their regular season competition against teams from neighboring localities. Blacksburg Black players -- in addition to the Hughes brothers, both of whom pitched as well as played middle infield -- included catcher Ethan Goforth, the coach's son, first baseman and pitcher Will Murray, and utility player Alex Pickrill. The White team provided assistant coach Tracy McCoy and his son, third baseman Morgan, left fielder and pitcher Andrew Guy, and utility player Grayson Shelton. From Royal came assistant coach Jeff Wall and his son, utility player Hunter, outfielder/shortstop Jake McCoy, pitcher/outfielder Adam Linkous, first baseman Tyler Davis and outfielder Eli Straw. Navy and assistant coach Chris Lucas brought his son, utility player Aaron, pitcher and center fielder John Hinson, and pitcher Caden Croy.
Goforth said the distinguishing characteristic of his team was its fundamental soundness in all facets of the game.
"I'm loving all stars," he said. "But I love the regular season, too. It's great seeing a kid make his first catch."
It was a first for Blacksburg to send both of its teams to state tournaments. Particularly gratifying for the Minors was knocking off perennial district power Patrick County in the final.
None of it was possible without manpower, said Don Gresh, league president and chief organizer of the Blacksburg Baseball Association eight years ago.
"Everybody who does this -- coaches, everybody -- is a volunteer," Gresh said.
It's plenty of work to be sure, but really how hard is it to volunteer to have the time of your life?